Making the Media Work for You
You’ve just picked up the phone and can already feel your stomach knotting up as you hear the woman on the other end begin to describe who she is and why she’s calling. As soon as you catch a few words—“I’m a reporter for ... ” or “I’m doing a story on ... ” or “I’d like to ask you a few quick questions about ... ”—you hardly hear the rest of the introduction. Your mind is trailing off, recalling a long-held vision of what this mythical ruthless beast invading your space might look like: the progeny of Darth Vader and Cruella De Vil, perhaps, someone who at best wouldn’t mind stepping all over your toes to get her next Pulitzer and who at worst ... well, you don’t want to even imagine that part.
“I was wondering how many animals you put down at the pound each year—I had heard it’s quite a lot,” the voice is saying, confirming your worst fears that this reporter wants nothing more than to bring down your organization. You flinch at the word “pound” as if it’s being spit upon you. You cringe at the idea of having to answer, once again, the same old question, the one that focuses more on the end result of animal homelessness than on the causes you are working so hard to address. You’re flooded with a sense of resignation as you remind yourself that no one outside the animal care and control field could possibly understand.
Making a mental note not to pick up the phone next time, you clam up and attempt to dispense with the conversation at near-lightning speed.
That reaction is understandable, and it’s also fairly common, especially among those with limited media experience. But here’s why it’s a bad idea: avoiding the media means losing free opportunities to reach more of your public than you could ever reach on your own. And treating them like an enemy is even worse; no matter how good your agency is, poor media relations can make it look juvenile, unprofessional, inflexible, unfriendly, isolationist, and unresponsive.
The good news—and there is always good news to be found—is that the media are not the enemy. Are they scary? Sometimes. Imperfect? Absolutely. Can they do long-term damage to your reputation? Only if you let them, and only if your organization is already infected by something damaging that’s worth reporting. Contrary to stereotypical portrayals in films, on TV, and in other outlets of pop culture, reporters are much more of a mixed bag than the blood-sucking, conniving bunch we often think them to be. They are as different as the people who work in your agency, the adopters who come to your front counter, the relinquishers who leave their animals in your care.
In fact, often the only common bonds they share with one another are that they are all looking desperately for stories to fill their time slots and space allotments, and most are trying to meet deadlines that would be seen as inhumane by people outside the journalism field. And if you’re the kind of interviewee who sits on one end of the line imagining that your inquisitor is searching for ways to portray you as the master of an evil dungeon, it might be helpful to know what probably prompted the phone call in the first place: In a typical scenario, the reporter would have stumbled into work around 9:30 after a late-night municipal meeting where residents complained about, say, the rising costs of library fines or the addition of potentially life-threatening peanut butter cookies to the elementary school lunch menu. The reporter would have already done these issues to death in past editions, quoting every gadfly in town on his conspiracy theories and allegations of systemic discrimination against peanut-sensitive children, so on this day she would find herself with little material left to follow up on.
Even so, her editor would be haranguing her to come up with something—anything—by 4 o’clock, lest the paper be left with a 20-column-inch blank space in the local sections. There would be nothing left for a dutiful minion to do other than comb through the piles on her desk and read through random messages people have left during the previous weeks—like the voice mail from a woman saying she is “fed up” with the local animal shelter putting down all those nice animals, and why can’t the media do anything about it, what are they good for anyway, thank you very much. Never having set foot in the shelter or explored anything about it before, the reporter would then look up the agency’s main number and dial it, officially launching what in the journalistic world is not so cleverly referred to as “a fishing expedition.”
And that’s where you come in. This is your big chance. You can either choose to be offended by the reporter’s lack of knowledge and afraid of the awesome power she has to destroy you, or you can look at this as a tremendous opportunity—to educate, to enlighten, and to inspire the community to rise up and help you effect change. Whichever path you decide on, the media will always be there to cover it, whether you’re ready for them or not. It’s up to you to do whatever you can to make sure that coverage is as positive as it can be.
“You can’t buy that kind of time and space,” says Gordon Willard, executive director of the Animal Protective Foundation of Schenectady in Scotia, New York. “You cannot hide in a hole. If you’re going to be a community service and you’re going to try to create social change, you’ve got to be out there."
And if that idea makes you feel as panicked as a feral cat in a trap, read on for specific tips on responding effectively to media inquiries and developing relationships with local journalists that will have you sitting as calm and pretty as a happy house kitty the next time someone calls for an interview.
Oh Lord, Please Don’t Let Them Be Misunderstood
A few years ago, a woman ended up at a shelter on the West Coast after finding nowhere else to take a stray dog she’d found. It certainly wasn’t the first place she’d turned to; a longtime patron of dog breeders, she’d avoided animal shelters since a visit to one facility in another time and place had cemented her impression of all shelters as bastions of suffering.
But this organization was different from the one emblazoned in her memory: a modern-day facility, it was so unlike the place she’d visited decades before that she decided to volunteer on the spot—and has since become one of the agency’s most dedicated supporters.
It’s a bittersweet and true tale that hits close to home for many animal care and control agencies still struggling to shake off outdated perceptions and judgments about their role in society. The story is also an instructive lesson in human nature, revealing how easy it is to form lasting impressions about an entire profession.
Like animal shelters, the media often find themselves in this situation; they are saddled with an image problem. While most reporters are well-intentioned, a few bad apples can taint the whole bunch. “You may have a bad story,” says Dennis Graves, supervisor of Wichita Animal Control in Kansas. “You may have something that is inaccurate. You may have something that is misrepresented, but it’s that story and it’s that reporter and it’s that one thing. You can’t let one bad thing color how you treat the media from that point forward.”
Though there are certainly some reporters who aren’t interested in truth or ethics, most members of the media believe in the integrity of their profession and try to live up to it. Taking on the role of communicator and investigator, they believe it’s their job to inform, influence, expose, enlighten, and occasionally entertain. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes not, but at the end of the day, their work often speaks for itself, even when it seems few are listening. In recent years, Pulitzers have been awarded to hometown newspapers for pieces on subjects that run the gamut of the human condition: corruption in local criminal justice systems; health risks of waste disposal systems from factory farms; challenges facing critically ill patients who are fighting for euthanasia rights; and problems and abuses in federal agencies like the Immigration and Naturalization Service. In many cases, articles like these inspire action, prompting reforms by local governing bodies, state lawmakers, and even Congress.
It’s a point of pride for the media that you can’t control them, and if you like living in a free society with access to information as one of its cornerstones, you wouldn’t want to have the power to do that anyway. (Think Enron. Think Watergate. Think civil rights, sweatshop reforms, or any other social justice movement fueled by the media’s insatiable need for information.) But you can influence coverage just by being attentive to the needs of journalists and understanding how media outlets operate—usually much less systematically than the public is led to believe.
After years of appearing every week on a morning news show in the Albany area, Willard has gotten the inside scoop on local news operations—enough to see that they are not as sophisticated as they appear to be. The process of story selection can be random, depending on variables as seemingly minor as who is manning the assignment desk on a given day or how many other stories are breaking. As in shelters, some days in the newsroom are slower than others, and anything that crosses a reporter’s desk might be fashioned into a front-page story in the newspaper or a top-of-the hour segment on TV. Other days or even weeks at a time, the pace is so fast that news releases and unsolicited story pitches get the toss, sometimes ending up in a trash can before anyone even so much as glances at them.
That’s not an intentional slight; it’s just a function of time and space, or lack thereof. It’s a little known fact that most people who work in the media spend long hours working for a pittance in the name of what they believe to be a higher calling and an essential public service. Their lifestyle is more akin to that of those who work in advocacy organizations than to that of the celebrities everyone imagines when they think of the media—Dan Rather and Katie Couric might as well belong to a different profession entirely.
So while the motivations of a reporter may not exactly match yours, they are usually not malignant. And they are usually fairly easy to accommodate, says Jim Rickert, director of the Humane Society of Lackawanna County in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania. “They have a job to do, and they need to fill a minute and a half or two minutes with a story,” he says. “Once you realize that, oh, man—you’ve got it made.”
When he first arrived on the scene as a new director, it took a while for Rickert to overcome his fear of cameras and questions and scribbling pens. “They would show up at the door and say, ‘We need an interview,’ ” Rickert recalls. “And the first 50 of those interviews were absolutely horrible.” But after spending some of his off-hours helping out at a local cable station, Rickert’s trepidation waned. He learned that there is no vast media conspiracy to make people look bad, and usually not even a clear direction on the part of reporters as to where their stories are headed.
Most of all, though, Rickert learned that shelters too often underestimate how visually, emotionally, and intellectually compelling their work really is—and how much the media craves the kinds of stories only an animal protection organization can provide. “We have something they want,” Rickert says. “We have animals.”
So What's The Story?
That’s the unfair advantage shelters and other animal groups have over the local chapter of the nonprofit sink fixture manufacturers association or the city’s bridge stabilization advisory committee or any other entity seeking publicity for its issues. Animal stories are compelling. They are visual. They are a guaranteed good read in the newspaper and eye candy on TV broadcasts. The shelter that will be the most successful in gaining publicity for its programs is the one that knows this almost inherently—and takes every opportunity to capitalize on it.
And what seems routine to you is probably fascinating to the public and scintillating to the media; don’t make the mistake of assuming they know anything about what you do. “Don’t presume the most silly thing is not important,” says Willard. “For us it’s everyday stuff ... but to some of the media outlets, it can be just what they need to fill that hole.”
Consider what could happen in a typical day in an animal shelter: The ACO brings in a ragtag dog with scars on his face and bones poking through his skin. An elderly woman relinquishes a beloved cat because she’s going to an assisted-living center that doesn’t allow pets. A young girl calls to report that she and her mom have found a baby bird on the ground, so what should they do? An animal caretaker matches a lost-report description to the nine-year-old mixed breed in the sixth kennel on the right, and the owners of the dog arrive to see through teary eyes that this is, indeed, their baby. Meanwhile, the technician euthanizes an old cat with a heart murmur, a middle-aged dog with a sweet disposition but no lookers for the past month, and a rabbit who appears to have been one rabbit too many in the small-animal room this spring.
The very existence of your organization is a testament to both compassion and human failure, and it doesn’t take a very enterprising reporter to realize that each animal, each member of your staff, and every visitor who walks in has a story. But it takes a little bit of proactive outreach on your part; people won’t know about all the good your organization does and all the problems you face unless you tell them. Your work deserves to be seen and heard and absorbed by a public that has become too used to looking the other way. And one of your most effective avenues for reaching that public is the media; give them the broad picture of who you are and what you do by including them in your successes, your struggles, and even your daily operations.
“I suddenly realized that the papers around here really like animal stories, and I wasn’t bothering to tell them about little things I didn’t think were newsworthy, just in the course of daily events,” recalls Anne Irwin of her early days as executive director of the Bucks County SPCA in Pennsylvania. “But I try to remember more often now to actually call them up and say, ‘I have this story if you want it.’ ... More likely than not, they will run it. And then they get to know you, too.”
While it’s true that coverage is sometimes arbitrary, there is generally a pattern to what is appealing to reporters in a broader sense. They like what their editors like, and their editors like, for example, trend stories that illuminate a growing phenomenon—whether it’s something as serious as increased relinquishment rates due to a lack of available animal-friendly housing or as heartwarming as the growing number of dog parks in the area. Issue-oriented pieces, such as stories about the professed merits and pitfalls of reptile ownership or heated debates over breed-specific ordinances, also get top billing. And editors like anything that makes for great photos or video footage, a natural advantage for shelters up to their ears in photogenic creatures.
Organizations that keep these media needs in mind—and mold their pitches accordingly—are more likely to get their own needs met in turn. Some stories are easily accommodating to both: When the Animal Protective Foundation traced a lost cat’s microchip to Japan, Willard knew he had a natural pitch on his hands. The bizarre international twist made it a given that reporters would be interested, if only because it was something out of the ordinary. And even though the cat’s owners had never registered their information and were therefore impossible to locate, the incident gave the shelter a chance to reinforce its message to the public about the wonders of microchips while also reminding people that they need to follow through with registration. The successful adoption of the cat provided yet a third angle, giving Willard a chance to plug his shelter as a source for great pets.
Another match made in shelter heaven—that of a cat lost in New York with an owner who had relocated to California—was also an obvious story for Willard to pitch. Not surprisingly, reporters took him up on the offer, showing up at the airport to witness the shelter coordinating a happy reunion by putting the cat on a plane to the West Coast. “So not only did we look great because we’re sending the cat back,” says Willard, “but we got to talk about the ID tags and collars and all the things we do to get animals back to their homes.”
You don’t have to wait until an opportunity like that magically presents itself, however; you can invent ways to make your point while also providing some of the necessary ingredients of a good story. Be as creative as possible, remembering that you are vying with dozens of other area organizations for attention to your cause. Issuing a plain-Jane press release reminding the public that your spay/neuter clinic is open for business won’t give the media much to hang their hats on; you may get a tiny blurb, but if you’re pushing for splashier play, reporters will likely ask, “Why now? It’s been open for a while. What’s so special about today?” Learn to preempt those sorts of questions by creating interest, suggests Willard—perhaps through a celebration of the 1,000th spay/neuter surgery, complete with opportunities to photograph vets working diligently on furry underbellies.
Seasonal messages sent repeatedly are in danger of growing stale, too; as integral as it may be to your mission, simply reiterating the importance of keeping pets out of hot cars year after year is probably not going to be enough to grab any noteworthy attention from reporters who think they’ve already been there, written that. But sending a media alert explaining that the hot weather has inspired your shelter to add wading pools to the doggie play yards—along with photographs that emphasize your point—may be just the hook the media needs. The tactic certainly worked for the Oregon Humane Society, which had to spend only a few dollars on the cost of the pools at the local home improvement store. “We were into about four days of 90-degree temperatures, which in Portland is hot,” says Kathy Neely, the shelter’s communications and events specialist. “But one of the things we do here is we try to figure out an angle, so we just capitalized on something that we’re already doing for our dogs.”
Get to Know the Nature of the Beast
What Neely and other media-savvy professionals know is that stories on wading-pool parties are considered “color” or “fluff” pieces by reporters and editors—something light and fun to entertain readers between all the evening news segments about drive-by shootings, slashed school budgets, and stock market plummets. And they know that, at any time, a breaking news story could bump the animal pieces right out of the time slot; during especially busy news weeks or seasons, a press release about a canned event may not attract even one cameraman or reporter.
That may be frustrating, but it’s no reason to give up trying, says Willard. “Never think they’re intentionally snubbing you, because they’re not; they’re doing their job,” he says. “Think that you’re trying to meet their needs—by sending the information, getting it to the right places, being timely. ... It’s a lot of work, but it’s what you’ve got to do, because you don’t know what’s going on on the other end. Maybe somebody called in sick, somebody had a flat tire ... or your press release could have gone off the fax machine onto the floor and under the desk. Those things happen.”
Besides, even if your idea got the blow-off from the assignment editor, it still may interest the weekend bureau chief or the environmental reporter. Sometimes Willard even throws a pitch to the cameramen or photographers he has gotten to know; they are also journalists who have just as much power to suggest a story or a visual montage as a reporter does.
By studying the breadth and frequency of coverage provided by different media outlets in your area, you can look for inroads of opportunity. In most communities, news outfits operate on skeleton staffs during the weekends and struggle to find stories; Willard’s is no exception, so he often pitches ideas toward the end of the week when they are most likely to capture attention. Because of his behind-the-scenes background, Willard knows it wouldn’t be at all unusual for an editor to sort though events calendars and bins of press releases on a Friday afternoon, come across the shelter’s alert about an upcoming Sunday dog wash, and decide it could be just the thing to fill the centerpiece slot in Monday morning’s local sections.
Monitoring coverage trends helps Willard save his best stuff for when he’s most likely to get the media’s ear; for instance, he tries not to schedule that dog walk for the day Hillary Clinton comes to town and commands all the attention—something he could do little to avoid when it happened a couple of years ago but still uses as a reminder to himself to pay attention to news cycles.
Barring any grand tour stops by First Ladies, writers on the local level are so often scraping the bottom of the barrel for ideas that they usually welcome any fresh angles you can provide. Learning the “beats” of different reporters and pitching stories accordingly can help you take animal protection stories out of the “fluff stuff” trap and into the mainstream. If you have an interesting new humane education initiative, let the education reporter be the first to know about it. If you’re setting up a safehouse for the pets of abused women and children, call the crime reporter. If you’re in the middle of a heat wave and you want to unbury your hot-car message from its typical spot in the last paragraph of a weather survey piece on page B13 of the newspaper, get in touch with the weatherman and ask him to plug your message the next time he rattles off predicted highs and lows.
“Think of larger stories as well,” says Karen Allanach, The HSUS’s media relations manager and a former newspaper reporter. “How does what you do at the shelter affect your community? Attach the issues to personal stories; make it timely and newsworthy. Invite the reporter to come in and see your facility; show them the reality of what animal shelters do.”
If you are running a professional, humane operation, don’t be afraid to open your doors; the more you reveal about what you do and why you do it, the more trust you will gain from the media and the public. “If they call me about something, I say, ‘Yeah, that’ll be a great article—slide out here this afternoon,’ ” says Nicky Ratliff, executive director of the Humane Society of Carroll County in Westminster, Maryland. “When they show up, I take them through the whole kennel, I introduce them to all the staff. I give them the horse and pony show and then they get their story, but they also find out it doesn’t smell, they know it’s nice and clean, the staff seems really nice and they see the staff interacting with the public. ... You just go out of your way to make people comfortable—it’s that simple.”
If you’re afraid of the consequences of exposing a reporter to all the sadness in the shelter—the euthanasia, the relinquishments, the cruelty cases—consider the experience of Bob Anderson, director of the Bureau of Animal Control in Baltimore. When a Baltimore Sun reporter requested a ridealong with an animal control officer, Anderson suggested a different angle: Since that story had already been done so many times, he asked the Sun writer, would she be interested in shadowing the shelter’s euthanasia tech instead?
The reporter took him up on the offer, and the result was an enlightening, informative piece that not only channeled the issue through the personal account of the technician but placed it in a broader context, explaining to readers that Baltimore was just one city in one state in a vast country where the homeless animal population has reached a critical mass that leaves shelters with no other alternatives. Rather than portraying the problem as a failure on the part of the agency, the story conveyed what it really is: a failure on the part of society.
Be a Dream Source: Accessible, Available, Reliable
It may seem risky to open yourself up to that kind of scrutiny, especially in a profession where the job almost demands a uniform of invisible armor. But it’s far more devastating to hide in the shadows and never take the chance at all; for all the people who will end up criticizing you, there are just as many—and probably more—who will sit back in wonderment and chide themselves for not having learned about your organization sooner.
“I think a lot of the time, shelters tend to get on their pity pot,” says Jim Tedford, executive director of the Humane Society at Lollypop Farm in Rochester, New York. “Rather than going out there and telling people what they do, they assume that people are all stupid and will never understand. They won’t understand if we don’t tell them and talk to them.”
Avoidance often has the opposite of its intended effect anyway: At best, reporters feel they’ve wasted their time and aren’t likely to return unless they have to; at worst, they grow suspicious and think the sources who are the most reticent are those who have something to hide. Denying access to the full story usually results in an article or segment that reflects only bits and pieces of the truth, one that is so devoid of the overall picture that it paints an inaccurate portrayal of its subject.
“I know there are things that would have been misreported or reported differently if I had not dealt with the press the way I deal with them,” says Ratliff, who goes out of her way to help the media. “My newspaper reporters in my county have my beeper number. They have my home phone number. I tell them I don’t give a continental damn if it’s 3 in the morning. If you have a story and you need me ... you call me. They never have abused it.”
There’s a reason reporters aren’t in a hurry to exploit such helpfulness: They feel grateful to be trusted, and they need you as much as you need them. It’s a delicate balance, but, as Allanach says, “doing PR is all about relationships.” And it works both ways. As a reporter for a local paper in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., Allanach covered a series of suspicious fires over the course of more than a year. While other papers ignored the small fires, she consistently wrote items that let the community know what the fire department was doing to address the problem. When the big story broke and the arsonist was finally found, Allanach was the first to get the scoop—because she was the one who’d been paying attention. “The spokesperson was more willing to talk to me because I had covered the little things,” she says.
The situation isn’t much different in reverse: If you work with a reporter when she seeks your input on a controversial issue, she’ll be more receptive to you when you’re looking for coverage of one of your programs or services. The old “back scratching” adage was never more true than it is here; it may sound a bit manipulative, but often it simply represents a natural evolution of trust between a reporter and her source.
“I just don’t believe you shut the media out,” says Ratliff. “I believe you ingratiate yourself to them and then when the devil does show up and somebody is after you ... then the media already have some idea of what you’re all about. ... I don’t mean that they wouldn’t justifiably pursue a story if you really did something wrong, but if some idiot makes an allegation and it’s totally unlike anything the media has ever seen with regards to you, reporters are not going to be hot to pursue it.”
They definitely won’t know what you’re about and may get the wrong impression entirely if you shoo them away like flies—something Rickert has seen local firefighters do when the media shows up at a scene. “It’s your best PR, and they don’t understand that,” he says. One of Rickert’s own officers used to be the same way, once even running as fast as she could from the cameras while carrying a rescued dog away from a house fire. “I said to her, ‘You know, you blew it,’ ” says Rickert. “ ‘You had the perfect opportunity to turn slowly to the camera. That was perfect PR; you couldn’t ask for anything better.’ ”
Being helpful to the media will only gain you points, says Rickert. Lest you lose out on free publicity, always have a system in place that will guarantee fast response to media inquiries. When the primary media contact is not available on a given day, make sure someone else is acting as backup. Look at everything as an opportunity: Regardless of what the call is about, this is your organization’s chance to make its voice heard. If it’s something you’d rather not talk about, call back anyway; “could not be reached for comment” will make you look as if you’re running for cover. Besides, reporters so often get the cold shoulder or nasty treatment from suspicious members of the public that they are usually endeared to those who don’t instantly assume they are predatory monsters. By providing as much information as you can—and letting reporters know how they can get in touch with you quickly for any further information or clarifications—you are helping them do their jobs more smoothly while also increasing the likelihood that their stories will reflect your messages accurately and fairly.
If you can’t provide immediate answers, ask what the deadline is, find the answers, and call back as soon as possible. If you don’t have access to what the reporter needs or aren’t knowledgeable enough on the subject at hand, find someone who is and refer the reporter to that person. You can even keep a list of local and national animal experts handy; if reporters know they can count on your organization to respond in a timely manner or to point them in the right direction, they’re more likely to rely on you the next time they need the expertise of an animal person.
It’s not a coincidence that Willard gets calls on things as far afield as baboon heart transplants. It comes from years of pitching, promoting, schmoozing, and responding—candidly and helpfully. “What has happened over time ... is that when something happens related to animals, they all call me—I become the expert contact,” he says. “I’ve talked about cloning; I’ve talked about all those bizarre things. ... They’re trying to fill air time, and if I can get my face and our sign or who we are on there for ten seconds, it’s valuable.”
Take Them for a Spin
That may seem easy for someone like Willard to say; with 20 years of experience behind him, he’s become a media master. But practice and patience and a willingness to see the reporter’s point of view can help many people—even shy ones—learn to deflect negative publicity and position themselves as the animal resource in their communities.
At Rickert’s shelter, mock Q&A sessions prepare officers for the inevitable questions from both magistrates adjudicating cruelty cases and reporters on the scene of animal seizures or other rescues. Rickert sometimes even takes his Walter Cronkite show on the road, running through possible scenarios with officers on the way to a scene. “We just had two seized pit bulls off a property—the [owner] was not around for like a week,” he says. “And on the way to it, I said to one officer, ‘Okay, the press is probably going to be there because it was just on the scanner; this is the main point we want to make.’ Usually you can come up with ten more questions than the reporter is going to come up with because they don’t do this all the time.”
Sometimes reporters even launch the interview with something as general and inviting as “So what’s the story?” In that case, be prepared to fill their ears. While TV reporters and cameramen set up their white balances and other equipment, Eve Holt of the Hawaiian Humane Society uses the down time to provide background and explain the context behind the issue of the day. “Most reporters are very happy to have that kind of information because they cannot be experts on everything, and at the same time they are being asked to report on things as if they are experts,” says Holt, the shelter’s director of community relations. “So give them some grounding in whatever it is you’re talking about.”
You can anticipate the kinds of questions that might follow by identifying common themes in interviews; reporters often need information related to the organization’s financial situation, facilities, policies, procedures, recent improvements (in services, programs, or physical structure), goals and dreams for the future, and historical and national backdrops.
They are also looking for statistics beyond just the budget figures, including adoption rates, relinquishment rates, and other details about basic operations. Give them a basis for comparison by providing stats from other communities as well as regional and national numbers. “Don’t be afraid of what you do,” says Rickert. “Our shelter handles 6,500 animals a year ... but people don’t believe that there are really that many homeless animals. And the key is, when we tell them that, we’re saying, ‘But you have to remember that’s just in the two counties [that we service]. In the county below us, there’s, like, 7,000.’ And when we start giving them those numbers, that’s when they really say, ‘Whoa, wait a minute, I never knew!’ ”
It’s a given that you’ll be pressed for the basic “who, what, when, where, and how” details, but reporters usually put special emphasis on the significance and relevance—or the “why”—of the story. And most often they don’t know the “why” until you tell them, giving you another opportunity to hone answers that focus on the messages you’d most like to send to the public.
“You have to be a spin doctor,” says Graves. “If you know you’re going to have an interview with someone, go ahead and write up a little bullet sheet right beforehand. Make sure that the points you want made get into the story.”
Graves uses the hypothetical example of a dog hit by a car while an officer is on his way to responding. If the animal control agency doesn’t proactively point to the real source of the problem, the media might end up blaming the department—and the important educational message to keep animals safely confined will be lost. “You have to say, ‘Where’s the owner’s responsibility?’ You have to try and focus on the issue at hand, not that you weren’t able to get there in time,” Graves says. “The issue is that the dog was loose in the first place and was running around in traffic, and you have to make sure to keep the reporter on that particular angle. And journalists like as much help as they can get; they like to be fed information.”
Focus on your primary messages and don’t let a reporter leave an interview before you’ve made all your points. No matter what the reporter asks, you can work in almost anything if you practice the art of segue. For example, suppose one of your mantras is “Shelter animals are great pets, and we have many waiting for new homes”—but a reporter is asking you about your finances. You can lead her down a new path by responding, “Our budget is small—only X number of dollars per animal—but we make those dollars stretch a long way. Every animal adopted from us is temperament-tested, groomed, vaccinated, and sterilized.”
Answer Questionable Questions With More Questions
There’s no need to answer only the questions you’re being asked, and if the premise of a call has little merit or will be of little help to your organization, don’t let yourself get trapped. “I think reporters most of the time really mean well, and they want to write a good story,” says Allanach. “But believe me, reporters will ask the hard questions—some questions you may not want or are not prepared to answer. Don’t let them back you into that corner where you’re spilling beans you’re not comfortable spilling. You have to keep telling yourself that you are in control of the interview.”
That doesn’t mean you should be evasive, but you can employ a few techniques to get the conversation moving in a more positive direction. “If they start asking a question I don’t want to answer ... I simply go around that question,” says Rickert, “and start talking about something I want them to know about.”
If a reporter is making legitimate inquiries about your operations, your statistics, the nature of what you do, by all means be candid with your answers—the public needs to know the challenges you’re facing. If the inquiries are related to personnel or legal matters that you aren’t allowed to discuss, let reporters know you can’t respond specifically at this time but would be happy to help with anything else they might need or to suggest other angles they might explore.
But if a reporter’s questions show a clear lack of contextual understanding—i.e., “Why do you euthanize animals when the shelter down the street saves them all?”—try responding in kind, suggests Tedford. “What do you mean by ‘all’?” you might ask. “How many animals does that organization take in each day, each month, each year?” Help the reporter make the connections, and steer the conversation elsewhere. From a reporter’s perspective, the best interviews are those that meander and reveal interesting nuggets previously unknown to him; remember that the contact he’s making with you is often just a fishing expedition anyway.
“On the rare occasions that reporters have come to us and tried to be negative or tried to kind of be sensational,” Tedford says, “we have generally managed to turn it around or settle it down and really get down to the brass tacks of it all. I think that’s just key.”
Tedford knows that the media is always ravenous for more stories, and that the subject of the call is sometimes of less consequence than the proximity of the deadline. A recent inquiry from a TV reporter gave him the chance to test this assumption—and yielded stunning results. Following up on a tip, the reporter wanted to know if it was really true that Lollypop had been forced to euthanize more dogs than usual to make space for Chihuahuas rescued during a cruelty case.
No, there were only seven Chihuahuas, all known to each other and all resting together in one kennel, Tedford told the reporter. Not only that, but another shelter had conducted the seizure in a neighboring community; Lollypop was merely providing assistance. “So I said, ‘There’s really no story there, but you know, we’ve taken in 1,500 cats this month. That’s a huge story, and that’s a big problem,’ ” Tedford recalls. “He asked me one question [about Chihuahuas], and I talked for 27 minutes about cats.”
The resulting news segment illuminating the homeless cat problem made it all worthwhile. If Tedford had been content to tell the reporter he was wrong about the Chihuahuas and end the conversation there, he would have missed a tremendous opportunity to educate the public and promote his shelter’s programs.
The Best Defense is a Good Offense
Reporters searching for information on deadline are like hungry dogs trying frantically to fill their bellies and get to the bottom of the bowl; as long as you provide them with something interesting and relevant, they’ll gobble it up. That’s why Holt and Willard recommend developing press kits to deal with impending firestorms: It’s one thing to cram all your points into a 15-minute conversation with a reporter who’s trying to process eight similar interviews within the next three hours, but it’s another thing to reinforce the details in writing. Editors always ask last-minute questions about minutia, and if the reporter has a packet to refer to—complete with fact sheets, brochures, and sets of questions and well-developed answers—you have a chance to get some of your words into the story.
Preempting a media blitz by calling press conferences or inviting reporters in for tours has the effect of diluting the controversy; if the media sees that you are willing to work with them and speak to the issues candidly, your professionalism will shine through in their stories. When the staff of the Hawaiian Humane Society learned that a local group was calling a hostile press conference on the sidewalk of a dangerous intersection outside the shelter (a spot specifically selected to highlight the chimney of the crematory), Holt went a step further with her own invitation. “We sent out a press release inviting people onto the property for their own safety,” she says. “Here we were, taking a very positive position on this. There was absolutely no defensiveness.”
As it turned out, the man who was making unfounded accusations about the humane society failed to bring a “white paper” he had promised to distribute; he further discredited himself by showing up 20 minutes late to his own press conference. And even though the TV crews had already set up their cameras on the property, he tried to get them to relocate to his preferred spot: the place showing the chimney in the background. “But they ignored his attempts to get them to move their cameras,” says Holt. When the crews entered the facility, president Pam Burns made a calm, professional statement refuting slanderous claims about animal care and euthanasia procedures.
As Willard often says, the best defense is a good offense—and a good offense is neither offensive nor defensive. It simply anticipates, diffuses, enlightens, informs, and attempts to frame the story from your point of view. For instance, if your agency is about to engage in a large-scale rescue from an animal hoarder, what would you rather face: questions from a media you have already alerted to the situation, or questions from a media who learned of it randomly from a neighbor who assumes the hoarder is being “so sweet to take in all those animals”? Too often, articles and news segments about hoarding cases and other animal protection issues give the “other side” much more space than it deserves—simply because the animal care and control agency didn’t get the chance to provide background and a framework for the story first.
“The more we reveal to the press in those cases, the better off we are. ... You have to be honest with the press,” says Rickert. “Even if it’s something we don’t want them to know, you’re better off telling them ahead of time, rather than having them get a phone call from someone else saying, ‘Hey, did you know [the shelter] did this?’ Because then you have to immediately be on the defensive.”
What a reporter doesn’t know won’t hurt him as much as it could hurt you. During a recent summer in Baltimore, a reporter’s presence for all the events that led up to a dog’s untimely death in the back of a vehicle was actually what probably saved the shelter’s reputation in the end. It happened during a ridealong in a truck newly outfitted with air-conditioning; the ACO was so tickled by the system that he repeatedly demonstrated to the reporter how a green light on the dashboard helped ensure that cold air was flowing through the animal compartments.
But after picking up a dog and driving back to the shelter, the officer and the reporter went to the back of the vehicle to retrieve the dog, only to discover he was dying in the baking city heat. The distraught reporter watched as the officer began to cry.
Through no fault of the agency, the system had malfunctioned; director Bob Anderson would later discover it had been improperly wired. But had the reporter not been on the scene to witness the officer’s initial effusiveness and his subsequent sorrow, the resulting story could have been devastating. The media, as it often does, may have learned of the dog’s death through other means and had little context in which to place it.
Sometimes the more you allow reporters to witness all the things you experience in a given day, the more compassionate the coverage is likely to be. It’s difficult for anyone—especially a reporter who has been trained to be observant—to be face-to-face with another human being and not notice when he is genuinely trying to do the right thing.
With this philosophy in mind, Rickert invites the media to see things for themselves by alerting them “anonymously” to hoarding investigations and the like; the reporters don’t reveal who initially tipped them off, but Rickert goes on record at the scene and answers any questions they may have. “For some reason, that gets a good relationship between you and the reporter,” he says, “because they feel like you’re giving them classified information or something. You’re not—any one of the neighbors could have called them. But they love that; they thrive on it.”
The tactic must be employed carefully; there is a difference between soliciting media attention for the cases of true abusers who are unwilling to change and seeking publicity for the cases of people who know on some level that they are in over their heads and need help, says Rickert. A few months ago, he witnessed one of the worst hoarding situations he’d ever seen—but the investigation had been prompted by a call to another organization by the hoarder herself. “If they’re willing to call,” Rickert says, “then we owe it to them not to get the press there.”
When the Truth Hurts, Tell it Anyway
Sometimes the media will find out about something you wish they hadn’t, and whether that something was a mistake on your part or not, you must come clean. There probably is nothing worse than skirting the truth or wearing a defensive posture in an interview; whether you’re talking to a print reporter or a TV reporter, you will always end up the loser if you take this tack. What the public doesn’t see when they are reading an article or watching a segment are the questions from the media; usually they see only your quotes and your sound bites, not the entire dialogue that preceded them or the tone the reporter was using.
If you really have nothing to be defensive about but a reporter appears to be trying put you on the defensive anyway, you can politely reset the tone of the interview by putting the ball back in her court with helpful-sounding questions of your own: “I hope I gave you what you needed there—was that what you were looking for?” There is nothing more disarming to someone who is trying to create tension than someone who refuses to be riled.
As the director of Alachua County Animal Services in Florida years ago, John Snyder received an inquiry from a Gainesville Sun reporter who was in a mild rage over the issue of animal rendering. At the time, the agency had no other alternatives: Snyder wasn’t allowed to bring animals to the landfill, and cremation was prohibitively expensive.
Despite the reporter’s initial outrage, Snyder’s explanations made it into the paper, along with a reasoned discussion of the real source of the problem. Snyder, who is now the director of program management for The HSUS’s Companion Animals section, had detailed the causes of pet overpopulation in Alachua County and elsewhere; he had also reiterated one of the fundamental reasons for the shelter’s existence: “Animal shelters by their very nature are a haven or a sanctuary ...” he was quoted as saying. “Our aim is to reduce the numbers through sterilization. It’s a terrible waste.”
What had started out as an investigative piece aimed at “exposing” a practice the reporter had presumed to be unnecessary and mean-spirited actually ended up being a straightforward story that even elicited feedback from readers angry with the paper for calling attention to the issue. One distraught member of the community wrote, “I don’t see why this was the top headline or why we need to know what they do with the animals after we leave them at the shelter.”
An ensuing Sun editorial titled “Out of sight ...” eloquently answered that letter and in the process reinforced Snyder’s points: “For those who consider euthanasia and rendering an inhumane practice, consider the alternative—allowing great and growing numbers of abandoned and uncared-for animals to run loose, to forage for food, to waste away from hunger and illness, to pose a threat to the public health and safety. The people at the shelter do all they can to find good homes for their charges, but in the face of pending budget cuts, the shelter may soon find itself unable to do little more than ‘put to sleep’ the animals it receives.”
If Snyder had not been so forthright in response to the initial questions, the coverage surely would have taken on a different tone—a phenomenon Irwin discovered during a time when her agency was also flooded with baby animals. On a weekend in 1986 when she was busy preparing for the Bucks County SPCA’s first ever dogfighting investigation, the shelter took in its umpteenth litter of Shepherd-mix puppies. Staff made the decision to euthanize them immediately—a procedure that was, by necessity, standard practice when the kennels were full. Still, when the relinquishers learned of the euthanasia, they called the media and the story became front-page news. Protesters picketed outside the facility, hurling epithets at the SPCA and labeling its employees “puppy killers,” and a new group even formed as an “alternative” to the shelter.
The reason? Irwin and the staff weren’t sure how to respond to inquiries about the puppies’ whereabouts. “At first they got a bit of a runaround, not a straight answer. I think I was the one that gave that to them,” she says. “But then they got the straight answer. I didn’t think we would ever live that down, though. They were certainly not the first puppies we had ever put to sleep, but they were the ones who attracted a lot of attention.”
Willard found himself in a similar situation during his first few months on the job. When he arrived at the Animal Protective Foundation, it was standard practice for the staff to tell people who inquired about the status of relinquished or found animals that they had been adopted to “the proverbial farm in the country,” he says. One caller didn’t buy that answer, so she tried a different tack, calling back disguised as a veterinary clinic employee who was reporting the results of the animal’s stool sample. “And the [staff member] said, ‘No, he’s been euthanized,’ ” recalls Willard. “So boom, before I knew it, I had a TV camera in my face.”
Determined never to be caught in a situation like that again, Willard told the truth but also explained why staff may have felt it necessary to lie: to save the relinquisher from pain and anguish. “The reporter went right for my jugular—I mean right at it,” he says. “So I said, ‘You know what, I guess that was the policy, and we’ve made a mistake in trying to help the person not feel poor. And we did not intend to lie, we intended to save them from [bearing the burden of] the problem. And we won’t lie [anymore]; there’s no reason to lie. It is what it is, the animals are coming in.’ That’s sort of how I approached it, and that was my moment of truth.
“The truth is the truth,” Willard says. “Spin a web, and you’re going to dig a hole that you’re not going to be able to get out of.”
To the reporter, it’s a question of credibility, and not only because they’re interested in the truth for the truth’s sake. They’re also interested in it because their jobs depend on it. Reporters are a dime a dozen; the ones who make too many blatant factual errors won’t be allowed to stick around for long. That’s why most completely discount those sources who have committed the ultimate sin of media relations: lying. A misrepresentation of the truth is a little more difficult to decipher—especially when it’s cast as a matter of opinion—but an outright lie is guaranteed grounds for dismissal from a reporter’s source list.
The group pestering the Hawaiian Humane Society found that out after sending a press release claiming that a federal drug agency probe of the shelter was underway; though reporters had only to make a quick call to the Drug Enforcement Agency to learn the allegation was untrue, the release wasted valuable time and insulted the media’s intelligence. The group’s false claims about financial grants and a county spay/neuter contract only further eroded its reputation.
In that case, as in so many others, the truth only served to bolster and protect the humane society. “We are being attacked and continue to be attacked, but everything is based just on complete fabrication, and the media realizes that they’ve been lied to,” says Holt. “At this point we realize this group really cannot hurt us. They are not going to be able to stop the good work that we’re doing for the community.”
But if your agency is facing public outcry or negative media attention because you have made a mistake—whether you’ve euthanized the wrong animal or failed to turn the air-conditioning on for a cat in the back of an animal control vehicle—just ’fess up, says Graves. “You’re going to suffer some flak, but in the long run you’re going to have a lot more respect from most people if you’re honest about it and ... explain the steps you’ve taken to correct it and move on. We all make mistakes—that’s something everyone does. I haven’t met anyone yet who’s perfect.”
When the Mistake Is Not Your Own
And that includes reporters, even though most receive ample schooling and training in the importance of getting the story right. The commitment to accuracy is taken so seriously these days that journalism teachers have been known to fail students for a transgression as seemingly minor as spelling a name wrong.
But reporters are human, and they’re rushed, and they don’t understand what they’re writing about nearly as much as you do. While repeated mistakes by the same reporters or the same news outlets are unconscionable, occasional ones are unavoidable; don’t let them get in the way of an otherwise good media relationship.
“I’ve found that most of the time if you contact those people and you tell them where they went wrong or if they’ve misstated something that you’ve said, they will try and correct it,” says Graves. “Or if it’s something that they can’t [correct], then I’ve found that the next time they do a story they are a little less apt to rake you over the coals.”
Recently, Holt’s comments related to the costs of quarantining an animal were taken out of context, making it appear as if she thinks the fee is a fair price to pay, when in fact she thinks it places a burden on pet owners that all residents of Hawaii should share. Predictably, a donor fired off a letter to the editor protesting that Holt’s take on the issue was outrageous.
In response, Holt was able to explain that she’d been misquoted. But she recommends also trying to get a correction published; even though corrections are usually buried inside the paper where most people won’t see them, at least they establish for the record—and for any inquiring citizen—that what you said does not match what was printed.
“I just call reporters and say, ‘You know, I just wanted to let you know that this wasn’t an accurate statement,’ ” says Holt. “I keep it friendly, I keep it professional. Usually I don’t think these are deliberate misquotes. What very often happens is a reporter will write a story and an editor will go in and edit it who is not privy to the original material.”
When reporters do get it right, be sure to thank them; telling a journalist you think he is fair and balanced is the ultimate compliment. Besides, if you let people know when you do like something, they’ll be more receptive to constructive criticism later, says Willard. “Build that rapport first, so the next time either they keep doing a good job, or if they don’t, you can at least say, ‘I’m a little confused on that [story],’ ” he says. “There’s no fix for it. All you’re doing is preparing them for the next time, and maybe they’ll think a little bit more.”
No matter what the media decides to do in its coverage of your organization, the strength of your operations and services is what matters most, says Rickert: “As long as you do what’s right for the animals, you’re fine. Any time the media has any questions, I always say, ‘Here, we do what’s in the best interest of the animal.’ We can’t be faulted for that.”
It’s what the Hawaiian Humane Society has been saying—and doing—for 105 years. And it may explain why the shelter’s reputation is as resistant to damage as if it were coated in Scotchgard. In fact, during the onslaught of attacks from the group that was accusing the humane society of horrific practices, the community still believed in the shelter so much that donations actually increased.
“We have been a part of this community—and a very visible part of this community—since 1897,” says Holt. “And in very positive ways, always out there helping. Everything in our policies and procedures has been about educating the community, and all of our animal control work has been based on prevention and education. ... I think that probably made the rest of this [negative publicity] vanish pretty quickly.”